Dressing for the Weather pt 1 - Winter Hiking
The Aspens are starting to glisten gold in the sun and the days are getting shorter. With winter nearly upon us it's a good time to review how to dress for cold weather activity. Dressing for the winter is a balancing act of staying warm while keeping as dry as possible from both sweat and the weather. Dressing in layers is the easiest way to stay comfortable all year-round.
Base Layer (Wicking)
The clothing you wear next to your skin, also called a base layer, is arguably one of the most important in your cold-weather system. The job of a base layer is to wick moisture away from your skin so it can evaporate without cooling your body temperature through convection. Base layers should always be made from a non-cotton, wicking, material. My preferred material is Capilene - a polyester made from recycled materials used by Patagonia, Inc. I use Capilene base layers for both my legs and upper body.
Mid Layer (Insulation)
The mid layer(s) is where the majority of your "warm" insulating clothes will be worn. Mid layers are typically thicker and made of insulating, but breathable, materials like polyester, down and fleece. These layers trap body heat close to you however they are typically neither wind nor water proof. I use many different mid layer materials (and sometimes multiple of them at once depending on the weather) from additional Capilene layers to fleece, synthetic insulation (like PrimaLoft), and traditional goose down.
Outer Shell (Protection)
Your outer-most layer, often referred to as a shell, should be designed to protect you from the elements. While your first two layers were designed to wick moisture away and keep you warm, a shell layer should be chosen to be both windproof and waterproof. Think of your shell as a mobile shelter. If there's one layer to spend the majority of your budget on, I would recommend getting a high quality hard-shell jacket and pants. These materials will be durable to withstand the physical abuse you throw at them while still keeping the elements at bay. Higher-end shell materials will also be breathable - allowing sweat to continue its journey away from your body. Material options for shell layers include GoreTex, Climashield, and eVent.
My grandfather always said that the most important pieces of equipment you own are what protect your head and what protect your feet. One of the quickest ways to have a miserable time outdoors in the winter is to have cold toes. While traditional hiking boots work well for spring, summer and fall, if you plan on being outdoors more than a few days during the winter, a good pair of waterproof, insulated boots are unbeatable. You'll want to pick your level of insulation based on the weather you plan on being in. For day hiking and weekend backpacking in New Mexico, I recommend something around 200g Thinsulate like the Salomon X Ultra hiking boot. This level of insulation provides great warmth without causing your foot to overheat.
One common misconception when hiking and camping during the winter is to wear multiple pairs of thick socks to keep your toes warm. In actuality, this can cause your feet to become colder, faster! Adding additional layers of socks to your regularly-sized hiking boots will cause additional pressure on your feet and reduce circulation. This lack of circulation will cause your toes to become cold (and possibly numb, which can become dangerous) in a matter of minutes. Always make sure to size your hiking boots by trying them on with the socks you will be using. A single pair of thick synthetic wool socks (Darn Tough, SmartWool) and a thin silk liner sock will be sufficient for all but the most extreme mountaineering conditions.
Hats, Gloves, and everything else
Just like your clothing, layering concepts can help in selecting gloves and hats. Gloves provide great dexterity, but are not as warm as mittens. Pairing a light to medium glove with a shelled mitten is a great option to keep you warm while allowing you to easily use your fingers. A thin hat made of either polyester or merino wool can keep a bit of warmth trapped while allowing you to manage your body heat. If your mid layer and shell have hoods you can use those in addition to your hat if you become cold. Scarves and balaclavas are great options to keep the wind off your face and provide additional warmth. As with all of your layers avoid cotton whenever possible.
Winter hiking, while providing a few different challenges, can be just as comfortable and fun as the rest of the year. With a little preparation you'll be ready to handle anything!
If you have questions about dressing for winter hiking and camping, leave a comment below or connect with us on Facebook or via email. Want to get out in the snow, but not sure exactly how? Check out our guided snowshoe adventures or snowshoe rentals.
See you out there! - MC